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A Guide to Bible Reading

The Bible is like a great ocean. It has a sandy beach with shallows where even children can play safely. It has deeper parts where adults can swim. But it also has vast depths that we can never get to the bottom of.

There are some people who have never seen the sea.

They have never scanned that broad horizon, never smelt the tang or tasted the salt spray on their lips, never experienced the crash or roar of the great breakers, the turmoil of the surf, the gentle lapping of a tranquil sea, or the quiet stillness of a flat calm. They have missed a whole dimension of life's experience. One writer put it like this:

The Bible is like a great ocean. It has a sandy beach with shallows where even children can play safely. It has deeper parts where adults can swim. But it also has vast depths that we can never get to the bottom of.A User’s Guide to the Bible – Lion Press

Like the sea, the Bible has many moods. Sometimes it thunders at us, challenging our complacency and inertia and threatening judgment to come. At other times it calms and comforts, soothing shredded nerves, offering words of comfort and hope and promising rebirth.

Yet there are many people who have never opened its pages, never even dipped a toe in the water, so to speak. Like the man who has never seen the sea, their minds have never been opened to these broad horizons, these new perspectives which the Bible presents to us. There are others who occasionally dip into its pages to read again a familiar and muchloved passage, as they might resort to an aspirin or tranquillizer in time of stress. The Bible deserves better than that - God’s Word has so much to offer us if we open our minds to its message in its completeness.

But reading the Bible from cover to cover is a daunting prospect for most people. Whilst it is probably no longer than a typical ‘blockbuster’ novel, its qualities and the impetus to read it, are very different. A collection of 66 books of different types, some written more than three thousand years ago, springing from a very different age and culture, it presents some formidable obstacles which can quickly put off the casual reader.

The structure of the Bible

The Bible is in two parts, 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. The books were originally written on scrolls in a continuous text divided into columns. When the King James Version was translated in AD 1611 the book was divided into chapters (with a few exceptions) and then again into verses following an earlier system used in the Geneva Bible. This is a very useful method of finding our way and enables us to pinpoint a particular passage with relative ease. However, this system of breaks into chapter and verse is not always the best arrangement to retain the flow of the text. Do bear this in mind as you read and study the Bible, so that you have a complete understanding of the passage being read.

So how are you going to start? The following are a few suggestions to help you get started on your Bible reading in a sensible and structured way, which will eventually provide great rewards.

Which Bible shall I read?

Any bookshop with a decent religious section will present a bewildering array of Bibles to confuse the enquirer. The most familiar is still the King James Version, read and revered by many people for its outstanding literary qualities.

But the Bible is far more than great literature and there are some who, coming fresh to the Bible, will find the language of King James an insurmountable barrier to understanding or applying its message today. The New King James Version retains the basic sentence structure and rhythms of the King James Bible, whilst updating the language. Other new translations, such as the New International Version, provide an alternative. Some of these versions are listed at the end of Bible Study Tools

Some translations are free and the language is more colloquial than others. Every translation needs to be used with care and any serious Bible study will involve the use of more than one version. But for everyday reading, find a version that you understand and that you enjoy reading. As your knowledge of the Bible increases, you will become aware of the weaknesses and strengths of each version and better equipped to choose between them.

When you are choosing a Bible for yourself, think about other ways it can help you in your reading. Ideally, choose a Bible with cross references in the margin that will help you find quotations and parallel passages. A good selection of maps will be useful and some editions will have other ‘helps’, such as a list of references to Christ in the Old Testament, Bible weights and measures and their current equivalents, the Jewish calendar and so on. Some Bibles even have a small concordance in the back, where you can look up particular words and where they occur. However you will probably find this to be an abbreviated version, and of limited value compared with a separate complete concordance.

Think also about whether you need to carry a Bible with you and if so, choose a small Bible that will not be too heavy. For those used to carrying a computer with them, a range of Bible versions is available in electronic format, together with study aids such as concordances and lexicons. Similar software is available for smaller hand-held electronic devices like mobile phones and tablet computers.

Where do I start?

When they pick up a good book, many people cannot resist the temptation to look at the end, at the same time, or even before they look at the beginning. When it comes to the Bible that is not a bad idea. If, for example, you read together the early chapters of Genesis and the last few chapters of Revelation, you will find the origin of sin and death (Genesis 3) and God's promise to remove both (Revelation 21.4); you will read of a new creation to replace the first (Revelation 21.1), of the rivers watering Eden and the tree of life at the beginning, a river of life and the tree of life in the age to come (Genesis 2.10, 3.24; Revelation 22.1). The importance of Genesis as the foundation of God's plan for mankind could hardly be clearer.

But it has to be said that the Book of Revelation is not the easiest place for the new Bible reader to begin. Reading the Old and New Testaments simultaneously is definitely a good idea – the fact that they interrelate and complement each other will soon become obvious. Some editions of the New King James Version contain a plan for reading the whole Bible in a year, reading part of the Old Testament and part of the New Testament each day, starting with Genesis chapter 1 and Matthew chapter 1 respectively. The problem here is that, due to the difference in the length of each Testament, a very small section of the New Testament (often half a chapter or less), is accompanied by a large chunk of the Old Testament – often three or four chapters. Also, reading the Bible in sequence (for example the four Gospel records), is not necessarily the most interesting and productive way of reading.

A plan for daily reading

bible companion

For more than 150 years the Christadelphians have used a daily reading plan known as the ‘Bible Companion’, which enables the reader to cover the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice in the course of a year. It does so with three different daily readings, two from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament (see image to the right). The Old Testament portions start with Genesis and Psalms, and then simply follow the books through in sequence. The New Testament plan starts with Matthew, but after each Gospel record, diverts to some of the later books and letters before returning to the next Gospel record and so on. Such a plan ensures a varied and interesting diet each day. The Psalms, for example, provide a perfect foil for the narrative of Genesis and the details of the Law of Moses in the subsequent books.

One of the criticisms which may be levelled at the ‘Bible Companion’ is that it splits up even some of the smaller books over several days, and it is sometimes difficult to achieve the overall picture of a book’s message and structure. No daily reading plan will be sufficient on its own to do justice to God’s Word and needs to be supplemented by additional study which focuses on particular themes or books. The ‘Bible Companion’ has been tried and tested by several generations of Christadelphians, and we recommend it to you. If you would like a copy please contact The Dawn Book Supply.

An approach to reading

Reading the Bible needs discipline. It may be unfashionable but it is essential. It needs self-discipline to set aside a particular part of each day, ideally when the mind is fresh and when your reading can perhaps be shared with a friend or members of your family. It needs the discipline of re-focusing the mind which is otherwise occupied with 1001 things, some trivial, some important, but none as important as God's Word. It means a disciplined approach to the Bible itself a constant and structured questioning of its content, designed to bring out its real message and its genuine practical relevance to your life. The following, for example, are some of the questions that you might like to keep in your mind as you read the Bible each day.

What kind of writing is this?

The Bible contains many different types of literature - history, narrative, poetry, prophecy and parables etc. If a passage appears to be straightforward historical narrative, then we need to ask why it has been preserved and what we are intended to gain from it. This is how the early disciples of Jesus used the Old Testament narrative. The Apostle Paul, in looking back on some of the events which happened to Israel in the wilderness wrote: ‘These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us…’. (1 Corinthians 10.11 NIV) The Apostle James tells us: ‘…as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord…You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy’. (James 5.10,11 NIV) 

So we need to read the Bible imaginatively and actively, placing ourselves in the position of its heroes and villains, drawing practical and spiritual guidance from the record of their lives. If a passage we are reading is poetry (and one of the advantages of a modern version is that the layout of the text will clearly distinguish between poetry and prose), then we need to be aware of the poetic imagery being used, to ask ourselves what emotional response it is designed to evoke from us and not to read it or interpret it in the same literal way that we would a historical section.

Many parts of the Bible contain prophecies about the future. It was in this way that God, through His prophets, distinguished their message from the many false prophets. Some understanding of the historical background of the prophecy will probably be essential if we are to understand how it was to be fulfilled. A Bible Dictionary, or one of the popular Study Bibles will usually provide the basic information.

Many Bible prophecies have more than one application and you may well find in your reading that a prophecy which may appear to have been fulfilled, has received an even more dramatic fulfilment in our own time. Or maybe it is telling us about something still to happen in the future preparing us for the great climax of God’s purpose with this earth.

So when we read passages like this, we need to ask ourselves some questions:

  • What is the background to this passage?
  • When was it given and why?
  • Was it fulfilled at the time and if so, how?
  • Does it have anything to teach me?
  • Is there anything about the future here that I should be expecting and preparing for?
  • What does it teach me about Jesus?

One of the most astonishing features of the Bible, as you get to know it, is that such an assortment of writers have a single theme, and that it is dominated throughout by a single person. The theme is God’s plan for bringing salvation to sinful mankind. The person is the one man through whom that objective is being achieved – Jesus Christ. Jesus is alluded to there – in the earliest chapters of Genesis, the Law of Moses, the Psalms and the prophets, as well as being the subject of the Gospels and the Apostles’ letters.

One of the key questions to ask yourself as you read a particular passage of the Bible is this: ‘Does it tell me anything about Jesus?’ Often of course the answer will seem to be ‘No’but as you explore the Bible more and more, you will find the answer is often ‘Yes’. As you learn more about Jesus, for example his feelings as depicted in the Psalms (which fill out the often sparse account of the Gospel records), you will come closer to him and become better equipped to imitate his outstanding qualities in your life.

Unanswered questions

Having set yourself a series of questions, don't worry if many of the answers escape you. It is the experience of all Bible students, that as their knowledge of the Bible increases, the number of unanswered and unanswerable questions increases as well. Bible reading and study is not an intellectual diversion. The Bible was never designed simply to satisfy human curiosity. Whatever problems your reading of God’s Word may pose, we believe they are nothing compared with the clarity, simplicity and certainty of God’s plan which it reveals.

Listening to God every day

One Bible student wrote this:

‘The very best way to study the Bible is simply to read it daily with close attention and with prayer to see the light which shines from its pages, to meditate upon it, and to continue to read it until somehow it works itself, its words, its expressions, its teaching, its habits of thought and its presentation of God and His Christ into the very warp and woof of one's being.’ (Dr Howard A Kelley)

Follow that advice and you will find out what the Psalmist meant, and you will be able to pray with him when he said:

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path… Your statutes are forever right; give me understanding that I may live. Psalm 119.105,144 NIV

Contact Information

The Bible Study Centre
124 Mullum Mullum Road, Ringwood, Victoria 3134, Australia
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